Melanie Jansen was always told she was just like her older sister Donna.
She looks like her sibling, and has the same sweet, ready smile. She loves nature and has the same special way with children, especially babies.
“Everyone would say it, how we looked the same, acted the same. And we were close, so close.” Melanie’s voice trails off.
“That’s part of what makes it so hard for me,” she says as the tears spring into her eyes.
Twelve years ago, Donna, who was living in northern B.C., dropped off her four children at various friends’ homes. Her husband was away on a hunting trip. Then she went missing for three days.
She had taken her own life by overdosing on medication in a hotel room surrounded by candles and photographs of her children and family.
Despite the evidence, and the official cause of death as suicide, Melanie struggled with denial.
“I would tell myself, she would never do something like this. She would never leave her kids, leave us. She loved us too much. So I made up scenarios about what must have happened. She suffered from migraines, so I would think she accidentally took too much medication, that she wasn’t feeling well, so she got a hotel room and took extra. That way it was an accident. Or I would wonder if she was drugged by someone else, that someone put drugs into her coffee. Sometimes even now it is hard for me to say she died by suicide, even though I know it’s true.”
Grieving a death by suicide is different than many other types of loss. Accidents are shocking, illnesses can leave loved ones with time to prepare and say goodbye – even murder can leave those left behind with someone to blame. Suicide is a choice to die.
“It is the ultimate rejection,” says Melanie. “That person has decided to remove themselves from life, from your life and the life of everyone who loves them.”
Guilt, shame and stigma also coloured Melanie’s grieving process –as it can for many of those left behind after a loved one has taken their own life.
For Melanie, she keenly felt the pain of having talked to her sister a few days before her death. Donna was feeling isolated, overwhelmed with work and increasing problems with headaches. Melanie talked with her on the phone and encouraged her sister to come for a visit.
“I knew she was down and feeling helpless, but she never really reached out to any of us directly. She was proud and stubborn too. I asked her to come and she told me she didn’t want to bring the way she was feeling into my home.”
“Of course, now I wish I had dropped everything and run to her, but I had young children, I couldn’t just take off. And I had no inkling it was that bad. That was the last time I talked to her.”
Guilt consumed Melanie, as did the varied reactions of people to Donna’s death. Some were angry at Donna, calling her selfish or worse. Others didn’t want to speak of her at all, as though she had never existed. Still others talked of how suicide is a sin in their religion and how Donna would be in hell.
Melanie also went through her own personal struggles with the comparisons made between her and her sister. She was fearful that because they were so alike, she too would follow the same path. When she turned 38, the same age her sister was when she took her own life, Melanie lived in fear and struggled with her mental health. She knew the statistic that suicide risk is higher for people with a relative who has died by suicide.
She credits education about suicide with helping to get her through those times. In the years that followed Donna’s death, Melanie had taken counseling and suicide prevention workshops. She moved to a new place and got her social service worker diploma.
“The knowledge gave me power. I knew what I needed to do when I came up against those feelings. I can understand better now how people can get into a place where nothing can reach them, when they can’t see outside, when life seems so painful that the only way out is to give up. But what I learned helped me come out on the other side. And I did it. I made it.”
That has led Melanie to a place where she wants to open up about her journey of healing.
She also came to grips with the reality that her sister’s death was not her fault.
“That’s my biggest message to others. It is not your fault. This is their choice to make and only they can make it.”
It’s a place where Melanie also knows that reaching out and talking about suicide is a way to help those who are struggling, as well as reaching out to those who have been touched by a similar loss.
“It is important not to be scared of it. I realized I was not honouring my spirit, or Donna’s, by staying silent. I lost my sister. She was here. She was real. It is not to hide, not to forget, but to be somewhere to honour her. I am learning, still learning how to walk with it.”
Melanie will be walking with a lantern on Wednesday, Sept. 13. She will remember Donna and the 38 years she lived. She does not want her suicide to be the only thing that now defines her sister – or herself.
“Now when people say how much I am like her, I am honoured. She was a very special person. She made a choice, but it doesn’t mean I have to make those same choices. I can be just like her and make a different choice.”
For more information on the Wednesday’s lantern walk click here.